Light And Shadows: The Story Of Iranian Jews

Have you ever tasted the delectable dishes of Persian Jewry? If not, then you need to head to Colbeh immediately, or better yet, to your Persian friend’s Shabbat dinner. Have you ever witnessed the jovial customs of a Persian Jewish wedding? If not, then you need to find a way to land on the guest list. This culture knows how to channel its inner strength and tenacity toward uplifting simchat hachayim and celebratory joy.

Persian Jews possess a remarkable history. Like all other Jews, they have suffered their share of oppression, stigmatization, and anguish. And like all other Jews, they have never faltered. They have risen, and still continue to rise, above the tides of hatred, while being committed to tradition and dedicated to supporting the Jewish community. However, we would expect no less from the descendants of Esther and Mordechai. Jews from Iran carry fierce wit, admirable talent, fortitude, and trust in G-d in their very DNA structure.

Bearing this in mind, when I discovered that the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History is currently featuring an exhibit titled Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews, I knew I had to pay it a visit. And not surprisingly, I am grateful that I went. The exhibit was originally created by Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel, and the YU Museum, in collaboration with the American Sephardi Federation, has allowed us to view it in New York as well.

Light and Shadows is meticulously organized and artfully displayed. It documents the complex past of Iranian Jews, dating back nearly 2,700 years since the first Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia settled in Persia. The exhibit sweeps the visitor on a journey from the biblical plot of Purim to the Islamic conquering of Persia in the 7th century CE to forced conversion in 19th century Persia and, finally, to the 20th and 21st century state of Iranian Jews.

One learns how the Persian Jews experienced their history of light and shadows, success and despair, freedom and persecution. After the miracle of Purim, the Jews in Persia led a tranquil existence during the reign of King Cyrus the Great. Unfortunately, however, they were victimized and deemed ritually impure when the Muslims conquered Persia in the seventh century. The Muslim conquering ushered in many difficulties for Jews.

In fact, under the rule of the Safavid kingdom, Jews were no longer permitted to be wholesale merchants or bankers (trades that they were formerly successful in). Jews were also forbidden to have any kind of physical contact with Muslims, the latter fretting that the former would taint their souls through a mere handshake. Furthermore, like Germany and its Star of David, Persian Jews were also forced to publicize their inherent “impurity.” Their “badge of shame,” however, was not a yellow cloth with the word “Jude” on it, but mismatched shoes. Perfectly paired soles were forbidden for Jews in ancient Persia.

Although unfashionable and embarrassing, clashing footwear paled in comparison to the dire situation that Jewish inhabitants from Mashad found themselves in during the mid-19th century. Jews from this Persian city were not only cruelly attacked by mobs, but also forced to convert to Islam. While Mashadi Jews practiced Islam publicly, they did not yield completely. Like the Marranos, they were determined to keep all the Jewish laws within the privacy of their homes.

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